With cutting-edge programming across all categories, the Peabody Awards highlights, in its 78th year, television that boldly explores identity, diversity and the experience of the underrepresented in today’s society — often with a tinge of absurdist humor.
This year’s winners in the entertainment category alone include HBO’s dark comedy “Barry,” about a hitman who would rather realize his potential as an actor; “Random Acts of Flyness,” also from HBO, which examines what it means to be young and black in America through avant-garde sketch comedy; and Netflix’s “The End of the F***ing World,” about a self-identifying teenage psychopath just trying to make it through high school.
The 30 shows selected for the prestigious awards should hopefully form something of a time capsule, says Jeffrey P. Jones, director of the George Foster Peabody Awards at the University of Georgia. “We look for stories that are very connected to the sociopolitical world, or the moment that we’re in as a society.”
Jones uses Hannah Gadsby’s “Nanette” as an example of a program that breaks ground in addressing toxic masculinity, rape culture and heteronormativity through a familiar medium. “We’ve never seen standup like that — that kind of questions the form, but also speaks to matters that are very much a part of the moment,” says Jones.
While FX’s “Pose” takes place in the 1980s LGBTQ community, its message about inclusivity — or lack thereof — is as topical in today’s America as it was then. “We exist in a moment where there’s active legislatures still trying to remove the rights of LGBTQ citizens,” says Jones.
Other themes reflecting our current cultural experience have also emerged this year. “When you look at our winners, you see strong women, immigration, sexuality and technology as the broad themes that emerge,” he says. “It’s precisely these themes that make our award so powerful. These are the issues of our day. That’s the beauty of the Peabody.”
While the creators of “Killing Eve” never intended to be part of the great feminist wave sweeping pop culture, they now recognize the hunger for non-reductive female characters on television. “There is clearly something in the air,” says “Killing Eve” executive producer Sally Woodward Gentle. “That you can put two extraordinary, multi-layered women, who can be desperately flawed, heroic, joyous and inappropriate, bang center of a show — that then captures the public’s imagination in a way that we never anticipated — I think that there is a yearning for that.”
For the creators of Netflix’s “Patriot Act With Hasan Minhaj,” the Peabody speaks to a show’s impact, beyond just cultural representation. “Hasan and I both have always had a chip on our shoulder of not wanting to be considered the diversity hire,” says executive producer and co-creator Prashanth Venkataramanujam. “We want people who watch the show to go, ‘There’s representation, but even if he was a white dude, the content is good.’ That’s why the Peabody matters so much, because it’s saying, ‘Your voice is important, but also the work you’re doing is important — not just because you’re brown and because Hasan is Muslim.’”
The rise of socially relevant yet entertaining television could largely be attributed the emergence of bold new voices in a multi-platform TV landscape that is always hungry for more content. “I feel like what’s been happening in the last five, 10 years of television is that people aren’t diluting their experience,” says Venkataramanujam. “There is a marketplace now that values deep authenticity. Authenticity gets categorized as edgy, but in reality, I think content is getting more honest.”
Mixing the iconic with the topical, Rita Moreno will become the first Latinx Peabody Career Achievement Honor recipient and third PEGOT winner, behind Barbra Streisand and Mike Nichols, when she receives her award at the May 18 ceremony, hosted by Ronan Farrow.
“Given both her recent success with ‘One Day at a Time’ [and] the revival of ‘West Side Story,’ we thought it was important to recognize her creativity and her longevity. She’s done it all,” says Jones. “If there was ever a time to recognize the power and contributions of immigrants, now would be it.”